Dodge Park Elementary School sits on a hill, a virtual monument to what money can buy when it comes to education.
The school boasts the kind of program that would be envied in most of Maryland. There are small classes, language and math specialists, a guidance counselor, a librarian, a computer laboratory offering 22 take-home machines, a parent outreach worker and a library for parents.
Dodge Park is the kind of school that Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening has in mind as he stumps the state in his quest to become governor. He says that one of his top priorities as governor would be to invest more in Maryland's public schools.
But Dodge Park is far from a typical Prince George's County school. Its array of programs is made possible by funding available only in the county's magnet and Milliken II programs, which receive extra funding.
There are 68 such schools among the county's 175. Many other county schools have large classes, part-time librarians and few computers.
Meanwhile, the performance of county students on many standardized tests is second to last in all of Maryland, better only than those in poverty-stricken Baltimore. And that is an embarrassment for a county that pats itself on the back for becoming decidedly more affluent in recent years and for attracting one of the largest concentrations of black middle-class families in the nation.
It is a situation that Mr. Glendening does not talk about on the stump. But it is a source of sometimes bitter contention between him and members of the county's elected school board, who think he should put more money into county schools.
As he campaigns, the 50-year-old college professor is passionate when talking about education.
He talks about the funding increases that he has pushed during 11 years as county executive. He talks about the success of the magnet and Milliken II schools -- both part of a desegregation program that offers increased staffing and resources and schools where test scores are mostly impressive.
Mr. Glendening tells every audience that he volunteers half a day each week in a public school.
He even makes a personal case about the importance of education. He says that it made the critical difference in his own life, catapulting him from humble origins in Florida to the higher levels of Maryland politics.
"There were six children in my family," says Mr. Glendening, a Democrat. "We were very poor. I remember being 7 years old when we first got electricity. But the difference in my life was education. I see that as a major door of opportunity."
He says that creating good schools is among government's most important duties. And he promises that if he is elected governor, he will increase education spending in the hope of improving student achievement.
"We need a serious change in how resources are allocated in the state budget," he says. "I think we should increase the amount of money going to educational support across the board. We should not pit one county against the other."
Despite Mr. Glendening's pronouncements, some school officials say he is not the friend of public education he claims to be. They criticize him for sending his son to a private high school. He has feuded with the superintendent and school board. And, critics say, he has not always matched his pro-education words with county money.
Overall, the county schools spent $5,637 per student in 1991-1992, the last school year for which statewide statistics are available. That placed Prince George's eighth among Maryland's school districts in school spending but $186 per student below the state average.
Since Mr. Glendening took office in 1983, spending per pupil has more than doubled in Prince George's, fueled by huge increases in state aid and a steady rise in county support. Overall, the county spends 59 percent of its budget on schools, a larger share than the 48 percent statewide average, according to the Maryland Association of Counties.
Critics point out, however, that the percentage of the county's local tax dollars going to education slipped for much of Mr. Glendening's tenure before rebounding in the past three years. They say that Mr. Glendening should have done more, given the state of county schools.
It is generally agreed that classes are too big and that student achievement is low in many county schools. Mr. Glendening says that the problem is poor management, but his critics say that the schools need more funding from the county government.
"Parris Glendening is an enemy of education," says Marcy C. Canavan, vice chairman of the county's Board of Education and a longtime critic of the county executive. "We're not a poor county. More local money should be going into education."
Providing money is the only real control Mr. Glendening has over the schools. In Prince George's County, school board members are elected and the school superintendent is appointed by the board, which often pits the panel against the county executive.
In Baltimore, by contrast, the mayor sets the budget, appoints the school board and is often the most influential person in hiring the superintendent. As a result, he has a direct voice in running the schools.
Mr. Glendening's role in education is limited to setting the school budget and campaigning for whatever managerial changes he would like to see. And he cites those limitations as his biggest frustration in dealing with the county school system.
"I ask the same question that many voters ask," Mr. Glendening says. "If you more than double your per-pupil expenditure in a decade, how can you have your test scores declining?"
He says that he has continually pushed the school system to be more efficient. He has urged the county's elected school board to move toward school-based management. He wants more money to go to schools that have no special funding. He also wants the system to begin the legal moves necessary to end busing, which he criticizes as unpopular, costly and mostly pointless in a school system where 68 percent of the students are black.
"They are not putting the resources behind the teacher in the classroom," Mr. Glendening says.
The county executive has tried to use his bully pulpit as county executive to force some of those changes. But, mostly, that approach has failed.
Last fall, he called for the school board to begin a search for a new superintendent to replace Edward M. Felegy, whom he blames for several years of declining test scores. The board ignored his advice and gave Mr. Felegy a public vote of confidence.
Some interpreted the gubernatorial candidate's move as a blatant attempt to distance himself from a report released the same week that decried the performance of the school system.
Mr. Glendening disputes that analysis. "The bad news was not on the county; it was on the board," he says. "I could have stood back and said 'Hey' and left it that way. My frustration comes because of my inability to get any excellence from the board."
Mr. Glendening's attempts to broker a 10-year contract extension for highly regarded Superintendent John A. Murphy Jr. in 1991 also backfired, resulting in the departure of the highly regarded superintendent. The attempt to extend Mr. Murphy's contract was blocked by a storm of protest from blacks, who said they felt shut out of the process. The brouhaha prompted the superintendent to look for a new job.
Mr. Murphy's departure led to a major change for Prince George's. During his seven-year tenure, county schools garnered national acclaim. Much of the praise centered on the county's innovative magnet schools, which feature programs ranging from biotechnology to French immersion. The accolades spilled over to Mr. Glendening.
Since Mr. Murphy left, however, test scores have slipped, and public discussion has shifted from specialized programs to the school system's shortcomings: crowded classes and an uneven pattern of achievement.
MONEY FOR STUDENTS
Prince George's ranks eighth among state subdivisions in per-pupil spending, but critics say it should spend more. The figures are for the 1991-92 school year and include state, federal and local money.
RANK ... ... ... ... ... COUNTY ... ... ... ... ... SPENT
1 ... ... ... ... ... .. Montg'ry ... ... ... .. .. $7,377
2 ... ... ... ... ... .. Howard ... ... ... ... ... 6,481
3 ... ... ... ... ... .. Baltimore ... ... .. .. .. 6,200
4 ... ... ... ... ... .. Worcester ... ... .. .. .. 6,104
5 ... ... ... ... ... .. Kent ... ... ... ... .. .. 6,016
... ... ... ... .. .. .. State Avg. ... ... ... ... 5,823
6 ... ... ... ... ... .. A. Arundel ... ... ... ... 5,713
7 ... ... ... ... ... .. St. Mary's ... ... ... ... 5,668
8 ... ... ... ... ... .. Pr. George's ... ... .. .. 5,637
17 ... ... ... ... .. .. Balto. City ... ... ... .. 5,182